Friday, September 19, 2014

Scarlet Street (1945)

Although Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street has long been recognised as one of the key movies in the American film noir cycle it had the misfortune for many years to be seen only in very poor quality DVD releases. That problem has now been largely solved by Kino’s Blu-Ray release. It is now possible to see the film as it should be seen and to judge it accordingly.

Scarlet Street had an interesting history. It’s a remake of a 1931 Jean Renoir film which retains most of the plot elements of the earlier film but with some very important changes in both tone and in the nature of the relationship between the characters.

Scarlet Street is in some ways a logical follow-up to Lang’s 1944 hit The Woman in the Window. That movie also starred Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea and had relaunched Bennett’s career after a hiatus due to motherhood. The success of The Woman in the Window had convinced Joan Bennett that her best hope for maintaining her career as a major star was to continue working with Lang. She felt that Lang was the director who could get the best performances out of her, and that was an entirely accurate judgment on her part. She persuaded her husband, producer Walter Wanger, that it would be an extremely good idea to join Lang in setting up an independent production company. The company would have three huge assets - Bennett’s star quality, Lang’s reputation as a director and Wanger’s established relationship with Universal which would take care of the distribution angle. Diana Productions would have a brief and turbulent history.

While Diana Productions eventually met an unhappy fate in the short term Scarlet Street fulfilled the high expectations everyone involved had for it. It was well received by the critics and it was a box-office hit.

The story comprises two intersecting romantic triangles, although perhaps romantic is the wrong word for such spectacularly perverse relationships.

Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) is a meek cashier whose one genuine satisfaction in life is his painting. He was unwise enough to allow loneliness to tempt him into a disastrous marriage with the shrewish Adele (Rosalind Ivan). He is the sort of man who just lets life happen to him, rather like a train wreck. His attempts to take control of his own destiny will lead him to make some disastrous mistakes that will make his life a whole lot worse. Taking control is a good idea but it helps if you have some judgment. While some people see Lang’s characters as victims of fate Chris is entirely a victim of his own poor decisions and lack of judgment. Wishful thinking is not a good plan. It’s an especially bad plan when you’re dealing with someone like Kitty March (Joan Bennett).

Chris’s paintings are very much in the style of naïve art. He has had no art training and has never mastered the technique of perspective (just as he has never mastered the technique of perspective in his own life). One of the reasons this movie works so well is that his paintings (which were done for the movie by an artist friend of Lang’s) are so very convincing. They really do look like the work of an untrained amateur, they really do look like the paintings that a man like Chris would paint, and they really do look like the kinds of paintings that trendy art critics would hail as the product of an untrained genius.

Dudley Nichols had written the screenplay for Lang’s 1941 hit Man Hunt and was anxious to work with him again. Nichols provided Lang with exactly what he needed for Scarlet Street, a strong script which allowed free rein for Lang’s visual imagination.

Lang would adapt fairly well to the changing tastes and the demands for more location shooting in the 50s but he was really at his best shooting in a studio where he could have absolute control. In this case everything comes together perfectly - Alexander Golitzen’s art direction, the sets, the costumes, the acting, Lang’s visual brilliance, all complement one another. Kitty’s studio apartment makes a perfect contrast with the sordidness of Chris’s apartment.

Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett had already proved themselves to be a very successful and dynamic pairing in The Woman in the Window. They’re even better in Scarlet Street. As terrific as Robinson is he is perhaps overshadowed by Bennett’s extraordinary (and career-best) performance. Dan Duryea does what Dan Duryea always does, and does it with style.

Kino’s Blu-Ray is the best this movie has ever looked. A company with greater resources might have provided a better transfer but this one is a huge improvement over the generally horrible previous DVD releases. On his stimulating an informative audio commentary David Kalat does make a very good point about the ending, a point Lotte Eisner made in her excellent book on the director. Chris’s fate has more to do with the fact that he has failed to win Kitty from Johnny, rather than with actual guilt for his (Chris’s) crimes.

Be warned though - his audio commentary includes major spoilers for three other Lang movies - The Woman in the Window, Fury and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. If you haven’t  yet seen those movies you might want to think about skipping the commentary from around to the 65-minute mark to around the 80-minute mark. The spoilers are absolutely crucial and will pretty much wreck your enjoyment of those three movies. I understand that he could not make certain important points in his arguments without revealing those spoilers but it’s still something to bear in mind.

Scarlet Street is not only the best of Lang’s American films, it’s the best film of his career. Yes, even better than M. Very highly recommended.

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